UN suspends food aid to southern Somalia

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) pulled out of southern Somalia on Tuesday, citing repeated threats and raids by commanders of Al Shabab, the Al Qadea-linked Islamist militant group.

Mohamed Sheikh Nor/AP
Internally displaced Somali children line up to receive food aid at a food distribution centre in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Saturday. The center is run by an NGO called SAACID, and is funded by the WFP Somalia.

Somalia’s hardline Islamist militia, Al Shabab, has forced a halt to United Nations food relief, putting at least one million Somalis at risk of hunger.

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) suspended its food relief operations today, citing repeated threats by Al Shabab commanders, raids on its offices, and detention of its staff. Al Shabab commanders in the southern portion of Somalia had gone as far as demanding monetary payments to ensure the security of WFP staff, and also placed demands that WFP found untenable, such as firing of Somali women staffers and coordinators of food-relief programs.

“Ninety-five percent of the territory where WFP operates is controlled by Al Shabab, and in November, Shabab gave us a list of 11 conditions for aid agencies to meet, including removing women from jobs in aid work,” says Peter Smerdon, spokesman for WFP in Nairobi, where most of the agency’s Somali operations are coordinated. “They also made a demand for payment of $20,000 over six months for security. We can’t agree to the conditions and to that payment, so feel that it is time to pull out for the moment.”

Humanitarian crisis brewing?

While WFP will continue to deliver aid in parts of Somalia that are not under the control of Al Shabab, reaching up to 1.8 million people, the pull out of food relief is almost certain to have profound effects on the Somali population.

Nearly 2.2 million Somalis receive food aid every month, and nearly 71 percent of the Somali population suffer from under-nourishment, according to UN reports.

After years of drought and war, local farmers are simply unable to meet the need without outside assistance. Fighting for control of the country has already displaced 1.55 million Somalis from their homes but within Somalia, and hunger is likely to send Somalis on the move again, perhaps joining the millions of others have been forced from their country altogether, into Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, and beyond.

What is Al Shabab?

Al Shabab is an offshoot of Islamists who ruled Somalia for six months, from July to Dec. 2006, before being ousted by US-backed Ethiopian troops. Radicals from the Islamic Courts Union government reformed their forces and began a war of attrition with Ethiopia. By the time the Ethiopians retreated, with the formation of a broadly based transitional Somali government, Al Shabab had taken over vast swaths of the south, and much of the nation’s capital, Mogadishu remains under Shabab control.

The pullout of food aid reflects the hard line of Al Shabab, which increasingly appears to be led by foreign jihadists, who are replacing the local Islamists agenda of mere governmental takeover with a much broader objective of taking on the West in a permanent jihad. Shabab’s top leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, appears to have been sidelined after he disavowed the suicide bomb blast in a Mogadishu market that killed some 23 people. Security experts say that Mr. Godane has been replaced by foreign Islamists, who have no ties with the community, and no qualms about the effects of bomb blasts or cutoffs on the local population.

“The movement has been captured by foreign jihadists,” says one Somali expert who refused to be named for fear of retribution. “They are moving away from the local agenda for political control to a global jihad agenda.”

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